Veloo Saminathan looks back at the challenges facing the fledgling civil service in the years after independence.
During the colonial era, the Malayan Civil Service (or the MCS, as it was more popularly known), made up of administrative cadres, was the senior-most and elitist among the public services that governed Malaya.
It was filled with expatriate officers appointed by the Colonial Office in London. Members of the MCS were mostly Oxbridge types, although after World War Two, there was a smattering from other British universities.
The Malay Administrative Service (MAS) provided support service. This was made up of Malay officers, mainly from Raffles College in Singapore, and after World War Two and the establishment of the University of Malaya in Singapore, pass degree holders as a first step. (Those with an honours degree in arts could apply to join the MCS.)
Following Merdeka, a Foreign Service was established. The MCS and the Foreign Service were later merged to form the Malaysian Administrative and Diplomatic Service (Perkhidmatan Tadbir dan Diplomatik or PTD).
Going back a little, immediately after Merdeka, the MCS underwent what came to be known as a “Malayanisation” process. This was a scheme agreed upon at the London Merdeka talks.
Under this scheme, expatriate officers appointed by the Colonial Office, including professionals, would be phased out over about eight years. They were paid compensation for loss of career, set at a maximum of 94,000 Malayan dollars. They were also eligible to receive a lump-sum gratuity and a monthly pension based upon the period of service rendered. It was what one would call a seamless transition.
Local officers filled the posts vacated by the expatriates. Qualified and experienced MAS officers moved up in the MCS. A sprinkling of non-Malays were also recruited. This was the structure of the administrative service in the years following Merdeka, which because of rapid changes was in a state of evolution itself.
The senior cadres in the MCS were mainly MAS officers rich in experience at the district level. Many coped well although the younger officers with honours degrees in arts had an advantage in performing at secretariat level.
The challenges were many and arduous as the government under Tunku Abdul Rahman was committed to consolidate the fruits of Merdeka by rapidly modernising the country. The targets had to be achieved while waging a war of attrition against a communist insurrection.
The resources available were limited, and the government was compelled to find additional resources other than from tin and rubber, the mainstay of the economy then. Industrialisation was an important source which depended almost entirely on foreign investments.
Despite the onerous challenges, the country forged ahead thanks largely to the pragmatic and wise leadership of the Tunku and his coalition partners.
The parliamentary system of governance was new to the country. One of the chores that young officers felt uneasy about was attendance in Parliament to “cover” the prime minister during question time. The real problem was in the supplementaries, which required them to respond promptly by providing information to the prime minister.
The Opposition, led by the likes of Tan Chee Khoon and the Seenivasagam brothers from Perak, could be persistent in the follow-ups. One had to be quick in the uptake to prevent the situation from getting out of hand.
The Tunku, with his genial personality, handled the questioners with aplomb, sometimes delivering his answers with his impish humour. Question time in Parliament for young officers on duty like me was like a baptism of fire!
Veloo Saminathan is a former senior civil servant with a passion for writing